Children with disabilities celebrated at Make ‘m Smile event


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Marie Kuck (left) and family members who lost a loved one watch as a butterfly is released on stage at the Lake Eola Bandshell June 1 at the 17th Annual Make ‘m Smile event. PHOTOS BY S.T. CARDINAL

Marie Kuck (left) and family members who lost a loved one watch as a butterfly is released on stage at the Lake Eola Bandshell June 1 at the 17th Annual Make ‘m Smile event. PHOTOS BY S.T. CARDINAL

There were llamas, bounce-houses, singing, painting, dancing, people on stilts and almost everything else that could make a kid smile.

Nathaniel’s Hope, a non-profit organization that aims to support children with disabilities, held its 17th-annual Make ‘m Smile event June 1 at Lake Eola Park. The event began in 2002 when Tim and Marie Kuck lost their 4-year-old son.

“To me, it’s particularly emotional or special because we’re here today; our son is not here. We would be celebrating his birthday on June 6,” said , co-founder and executive director of Nathaniel’s Hope, at the event. “And because we can’t celebrate his birthday with him, we’re celebrating with all these incredible kids. So to see the joy on their faces and to see them love and be loved on just kind of means the world to me.”

Despite the laughter and joy throughout the event, one moment evoked some other emotions at the Lake Eola Bandshell when families were invited on stage to remember their loved ones by releasing a butterfly while their lost relative’s name was read out.

Attendees of the 17th annual Make ‘m Smile event dance to “Overcomer” at the Lake Eola Bandshell June 1.

Attendees of the 17th annual Make ‘m Smile event dance to “Overcomer” at the Lake Eola Bandshell June 1.

There were many more happy moments than sad, though. Kids were invited on stage to sing along and dance to songs like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Overcomer.” Marie said the goal of the event is in its name: Make them smile.

“It’s the biggest party celebrating kids with all types of special needs. We’re not disability-specific. It’s all disabilities and all ages,” Marie said. “We’re here just kind of rallying the community together to let kids with special needs, who we call VIPs, know that they’re valuable; they have purpose for their life; they’re not second-class citizens. We’re here just to celebrate life today.”

Cathy Crawford brought her granddaughter, Gabby, who has spinal muscular atrophy, to Make ‘m Smile for the third year and said they both had a great time.

“She loves to come here because she loves to play the games, and she loves to get the candy and just enjoy seeing all the other kids,” Crawford said. “And, to me, it’s just very sweet and endearing that these people give like this to these children.”

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